30 August 2012

Why you should watch: the most exciting players in Saturday's UTSA-South Alabama game

If you know nothing about UTSA and South Alabama’s college football teams, you’re probably not as interested as I am in a post breaking down the game, matchup by matchup.

So here’s a primer on some players I’m excited to see on Saturday – if you tune in, I think you’ll enjoy watching them too.

1. Kam Jones, WR, UTSA #1
5-11, 190 lbs, redshirt sophomore from Edna HS in southeast Texas
This is the guy you need to locate before the snap on every UTSA play. You’ll see him wide, in the slot, in the backfield, and even taking a direct snap once in a while. Quick and a great broken-field runner, he led the Roadrunners with 881 all-purpose yards last year after setting the tone for the season by returning the opening kickoff 37 yards and across midfield.

2. Jake Johnson, LB, South Alabama #42
6-1, 240 lbs, fifth-year senior from Stafford HS in Fredericksburg, Va.
Played at Virginia Tech 2008-09.
This guy plays like an animal. A weightroom fanatic who says his favorite NFL player is Jared Allen, he finds a way to be everywhere on defense from the center of South Alabama's 3-4 scheme. The play that stands out in my mind came against UTSA last year, when Johnson showed blitz up the middle, read the snap count perfectly, and got to the quarterback before the tailback did, forcing a fumble in the process. Not somebody you want to get hit by.

3. Eric Soza, QB, UTSA #8
6-0, 200 lbs, redshirt junior from Beeville Jones HS in southeast Texas
Redshirted at Texas State 2009.
As a Rice alumnus, I have a special fondness for the option, and Soza runs a terrific one. I appreciate a quarterback who can wait until the last second to pitch the ball, then absorb a big hit and get right back up, and Soza does it time and again. His backfield movement and ballhandling is very deceptive, and he’s not bad through the air.

4. Tyrell Pearson, CB, South Alabama #9
5-8, 150 lbs, junior from Greenville HS in South Carolina
Played at Mesa Comm. Coll. In Arizona 2010-11.
This guy basically got himself a Division I scholarship based off of a highlight tape that looked like an action movie, so that’s impressive to begin with. Described as a pure ballhawk, everybody who’s seen him says, “You’re going to love watching this guy play,” and I don’t doubt it.

5. Triston Wade, S, UTSA #14
5-11, 170 lbs, sophomore from Tyler John Tyler HS in east Texas
This is a guy starting at safety as a true sophomore even after committing at least seven personal-foul penalties last year and being ejected from a game! It’s because he is a huge hitter, forcing five turnovers last year and separating numerous other receivers from the ball. If he can control himself and his timing, expect to see some big plays.

6. Demetre Baker, RB, South Alabama #33
6-1, 210 lbs, sophomore from Orange Park HS in Florida
You see a lot of skill players who were track and field stars in high school, but how many of them were stars in the shot put and discus? Baker is a bruising running back who also happens to be the South Alabama school record holder in the shot put. I’m looking forward to watching him run, but I bet UTSA isn’t – Baker scored the game-winning touchdown in double overtime last year.

Saturday afternoon's game will kick off at 2 p.m. ET and can be seen on ESPN3 and WatchESPN. Follow @jtyardley for more coverage before and after the game.

28 August 2012

Common experience: UTSA, South Alabama share common threads

Weather permitting, South Alabama and UTSA will play their inaugural games as NCAA FBS teams, albeit transitional ones, on Thursday night Saturday afternoon. Weather permitting, I’ll call the game on ESPN3 alongside former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic. Fortune permitting, we’ll get a game as competitive as these teams played last year.

Yes, it is the first game at the FBS level for both teams, two of the four transitional FBS teams in 2012, along with Texas State and UMass. But UTSA and South Alabama met last year when both were competing as FCS independents, with the Jaguars winning at the Alamodome in double overtime. (Check out the highlights.) While there are plenty of differences in terms of Xs and Os (and I plan to look at some later in the week) and in terms of the path both teams took to prepare for an FBS schedule, they share any number of attributes and common storylines.

This game has been a long time coming for just about everybody on both teams: UTSA spent a full season just practicing in 2010, while South Alabama spent two years beating up on prep and lower-division schools in 2009-10. Last year, playing as independent FCS teams, both groups always had one eye on this year and this game. There’s going to be a lot of emotion attached to the first game at the FBS level, so in that sense, the teams come in on equal footing.

In scouting the teams, similarities also jumped out at three positions, providing three pairs of players to watch and focus on as we count down to the 2012 college football season:

1. Ubiquitous linebackers
Both teams’ defenses are led by take-charge players who seem to be everywhere on the field, yet they come at it in different ways. South Alabama senior Jake Johnson played two years at Virginia Tech, admits he got into weightlifting while watching professional wrestling as a kid, and plays with the savage power you would expect from a guy whose favorite NFL player is Jared Allen. His head coach, Joey Jones, calls him “a player I think will play in the NFL.” 'Nough said. On the other side, UTSA’s defensive soul starts with the less-heralded Steven Kurfehs (pronounced KERR-fis), a Division II transfer and Division I walk-on who earned a scholarship after that 2010 practice season. He proceeded to lead the Roadrunners in tackles through seven games last year before missing two games due to injury, although he was suspended for the final game of the year for a violation of team rules. A former safety, his speed and energy propel him from sideline to sideline, and head coach Larry Coker said he can play anywhere in Division I. Both teams have other excellent linebackers as well – Brandon Reeves for UTSA, Clifton Crews and Enrique Williams for South Alabama – but Johnson and Kurfehs are the guys who set the tone.

2. Eloquent centers
Each side sees its offense anchored by a true student-athlete at center. South Alabama’s Trey Clark has already graduated with a degree in exercise science (he is currently enrolled in a master’s program) and is the only Jaguar on the offensive side to start all 27 of the program’s games, dating back to 2009. UTSA sophomore Nate Leonard graduated third in his high-school class of more than 400 and readily employs appropriate metaphors when describing his search for Division I football in a must-read debut blog for the Huffington Post website. Snap counts should be in good hands with this duo.

3. Resilient kickers
Both South Alabama’s Michel Chapuseaux (pronounced Michael CHAP-uh-sew) and UTSA’s Sean Ianno (eye-AH-no), the latter from Pflugerville High School (where game sequences from ‘Friday Night Lights’ were filmed), played mostly soccer in high school, adding kicking duties in their junior and senior years, respectively. Yet they have already had to deal with plenty of adversity in their short football careers. In last year's meeting between the teams, Ianno lined up a 26-yard attempt for the win on the game's final play, only to see it blocked; Chapuseaux missed a field goal in the 2010 opener and has not attempted a competitive field goal since. Although both will surely say they have moved on, there will be a little extra pressure on each kick Thursday night this Saturday.

Weather permitting, of course.

Saturday afternoon's game will kick off at 2 p.m. ET and can be seen on ESPN3 and WatchESPN. Follow @jtyardley for more coverage before and after the game.

24 August 2012

One more post on HGPs: 2012 freshmen

In writing about men's college soccer, which kicks off tonight, it's usually best to stay away from freshmen until after they've played a few games. Some guys come in with a reputation and live up to it, but it's hard to predict, coaches don't like to talk about it, etc.

So when writing about MLS home-grown players in college soccer, both the Top Drawer Soccer team and myself, when compiling our lists of top prospects, have mostly stayed away from freshmen.

Because more information is better, however, I'm going to present a list of notable MLS-protected freshmen in college this season without making evaluations. Here is one college freshman from each MLS team (except Montreal) that I have heard of with good reason. I'm not saying these are the best players or that they will one day be a professional, merely that I have heard of each one for his soccer ability. Here they are, presented in alphabetical order by MLS team:

Chicago Fire - FW Andrew Oliver, Indiana, 5-8, 160
Chivas USA - DF Brendan Hines-Ike, Creighton, 6-1, 170
Columbus Crew - DF Andrew Souders, Akron, 5-11, 165
Colorado Rapids - MF Dillon Serna, Akron, 5-7, 135
D.C. United - FW Luis Rendon, Duke, 5-10, 160
FC Dallas - DF Mikey Ambrose, Maryland, 5-9, 155
Houston Dynamo - DF Bradley Bourgeois, Tulsa, 5-11, 190
Sporting Kansas City - FW Nate Opperman, Evansville, 6-0, 170
LA Galaxy - MF Grady Howe, UCLA, 5-10, 155
New England Revolution - DF Mitchell Taintor, Rutgers, 6-2, 175
New York Red Bulls - FW Brandon Allen, Georgetown, 6-0, 180
Philadelphia Union - FW Darius Madison, Virginia, 5-8, 160
Portland Timbers - MF Mikhail Doholis*, Oregon State, 5-10, 160
Real Salt Lake - MF Cole Nagy, UCLA, 5-8, 160
Seattle Sounders - MF Aaron Kovar, Stanford, 5-10, 155
San Jose Earthquakes - GK Kendall McIntosh, Santa Clara, 5-11, 160
Toronto FC - FW Omari Morris, Akron, 5-4, 145
Vancouver Whitecaps - MF Ben McKendry, New Mexico, 5-11, 150

* like many players with ties to Portland at this point, there are questions about the home-grown eligibility of Doholis

In case you can't get enough HGPs

One of my favorite MLS-related tasks over the last few years has been trying to track which players in college soccer have ties to MLS academies and are eligible to sign home-grown contracts. It's pretty cool to be able to nod understandingly when Alex Dixon, Connor Lade, or Matt Lampson signs a home-grown contract and be able to say they had been on your radar for a few years.

So I have a long list of players I believe to be associated with each club, although confirming their status on that club's protected-player list is usually tricky, if not impossible. This summer, I worked with the tireless Travis Clark at Top Drawer Soccer, and he's posted some of the top MLS-associated players to watch in college soccer this year. The list is a must-read and will get you acquainted with guys who could definitely be in MLS next year.

I agree with all the names on that list, but I wanted to add a few more that you may want to keep an eye on. Check them out after the jump:

21 August 2012

Catching up ... and relocating!

I've been too preoccupied to post for the last month or so, so my apologies on that front. We've been in the middle of a move from Philadelphia to Shreveport, Louisiana, and that has taken up most of my time. Things are relatively settled in Shreveport now, so I can get back to the sports business at hand.

In the last 6 weeks, I've called the beginning of the FC Dallas resurgence (its first road win, 2-1 over Colorado - check out the highlights with the TXA 21 commentary, which are unavailable on the MLS website) and part of the Houston Dynamo's five-game win streak (its first win outside the United States, 2-0 over Toronto - check out the highlights). In the process, I got to work with two great color analysts: Ian Joy for the FC Dallas game and Eddie Robinson for the Dynamo game.

Ian has been my most frequent partner in crime in Big D this year, and we enjoyed celebrating his birthday after the July 14 game. Unfortunately for our FCD broadcast team, Ian has accepted a position as analyst for BeIN Sports USA, where he will be an analyst for mostly European matches. I'm disappointed that we won't be working together again in the near future, but excited for him because I think he's a terrific analyst and friend.

Eddie is a long-time colleague and friend from my days working for the Dynamo, of course, and I'm actually going to take some of the credit for starting his broadcast career! He had knee surgery early in the 2009 season and was watching training from the stands near me one morning. He had a litany of comments on a recent national broadcast we had both watched and clearly felt strongly about broadcasting, so I invited him to join me on the radio broadcast for a game when our normal analyst was out of town. He accepted, and though unfortunately no recording of the game exists (I'm pretty sure it was the 0-0 tie against New York), he did very well in his first outing.

Fast forward three years, and Eddie has transitioned to coaching in the Dynamo Academy and regularly working as a color analyst on television broadcasts. He was a rough, physical player, but anybody who covered the Dynamo knows that Eddie Robinson has always been an honest, articulate quote, win or lose. He is the same way as a broadcaster, candidly pointing out both Xs and Os and more subtle nuances with straightforward, easy-to-understand terminology that I believe help fans understand the action. It was great to work with him on a Dynamo game again and catch up off the air.

College football coming your way
Since then, my focus has broadened to include the college football season. I am excited to say that I am scheduled to call four Division I college football games in the next month for ESPN3, all involving Sun Belt Conference teams. Working on a college football television broadcast was one of my main goals at the beginning of the year (while I have called football before and worked on television before, it's my first foray into televised football), so I am proud (and a little bit nervous) to get the chance. Check out my updated broadcast schedule for a list of games, outlets, and partners as they are confirmed.

I'll be posting about those college football games on this site - both about the games themselves and about my experience traveling to and calling them - but I am still a total MLS junkie, and I still have three soccer broadcasts scheduled this fall, so I won't back off the soccer commentary either. That should mean increased blog content all fall, so stay tuned ...